For Immediate Release: February 11, 2022
For More Information Contact: Elizabeth Hambourger, CDPL Senior Attorney, 919-412-2542
Raleigh, NC — On Friday, the North Carolina Supreme Court made history by invalidating a criminal conviction because the Wake County prosecutor illegally excluded a qualified Black citizen from the jury. It marks the first time that North Carolina’s appellate courts have ever overturned a case because of discrimination against a juror of color.
Until today, North Carolina was the only southern state whose appellate courts had never enforced the law on behalf of a Black citizen who was denied the right to serve on a jury.
“Discrimination against Black jurors has been rampant in North Carolina, but until now, our courts have refused to deal with the problem,” said Elizabeth Hambourger, a senior attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, who argued the case in the lower court and assisted with the appeal. “We are so relieved to see our state’s highest court finally acknowledge this important violation of civil rights.”
The court overturned the case of Christopher Clegg, who was convicted of armed robbery in Wake County in 2016, but the facts of the crime played no role in the ruling. Instead, the case hinged on the prosecutor’s decision to illegally remove a Black woman from the jury because of her race.
During the trial, when the prosecutor was questioned about his reasons for striking the woman, he told the judge that he did not like the juror’s “body language” and that she said she “supposed” she could be fair, indicating that she was unsure. The trial judge accepted the prosecutor’s reasons and allowed the prosecutor to dismiss the woman from the jury.
However, neither of the prosecutor’s reasons held up to scrutiny. There was no support for the vague claim about the juror’s body language or failure to make eye contact, which is a frequent excuse that prosecutors make for their removal of Black jurors. And he was simply incorrect about the juror being unsure about her own fairness. In truth, she said she “supposed” she could set aside her other responsibilities and serve on the jury. Meanwhile, a white juror who was questioned at the same time as the Black juror said that he would be distracted by his busy job, yet the prosecutor accepted him.
“Until today, it seems North Carolina’s courts have been waiting for a prosecutor to openly say: ‘I don’t want Black people on this jury,’ before enforcing the law,” said James Williams, a member of the National Consortium On Racial And Ethnic Fairness In The Courts and the retired public defender for Orange and Chatham Counties. “But that’s not how racism operates anymore. It’s rarely spoken aloud, yet it has devastating effects. It’s absolutely shameful how many Black people in North Carolina have been convicted by all-white juries.”
The opinion was authored by Justice Robin Hudson, who was joined by the Court’s three other Democratic justices. Justice Anita Earls wrote a concurring opinion, arguing the prosecutor discriminated against not just one, but two Black women jurors. Justice Phillip Berger, Jr., dissented, joined by the two other Republicans on the court.
Mr.Clegg has already served his time and been released.
Jury service is, along with voting, one of the few ways that citizens participate directly in democracy. It gives ordinary people a voice in the criminal punishment system and is an established civil right. Studies show that diverse juries deliberate more thoroughly and are less likely to convict innocent people.
Yet, courts across the country have been trying and failing to stamp out jury discrimination since 1965, when the Civil Rights Movement made it possible for Black people to finally begin serving on juries in the South. Even a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that explicitly outlawed the race-based exclusion of jurors has had little effect.
“North Carolina has a particularly atrocious record of enforcement, but discrimination against Black jurors is a problem nationwide, including in the most serious death penalty cases,” Hambourger said. “If we are ever to have a fair system, our courts must continue to say, over and over, that they will not allow convictions in cases where jurors of color have been excluded. I hope today’s decision is just the beginning for North Carolina.”